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National Day of Mourning Goes Forward, with Some Changes

As millions of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, many Native Americans and their supporters will commemorate the National Day of Mourning.

Held in Plymouth since 1970, the annual event is both solemn and political. It remembers the murder and oppression of Native Americans — and the theft of their land — by European settlers. It also serves as a protest of modern-day racism.

Kisha James, granddaughter of the founder and a senior at Wellesley College, said attendance has grown to more than 1,000 people a year.

“It's really one of the only times people get to hear Indigenous people speaking for themselves,” she said. “And it's also, for many people, the only time they're forced to confront the Thanksgiving mythology and what it means.”

The event starts at noon on a hill overlooking Plymouth Harbor. James, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, plans to give the first speech.

Her grandfather, Wamsutta Frank James, founded the National Day of Mourning after he was invited to speak at a state banquet commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival.

When the planners rejected his speech, he gave it outdoors in Plymouth instead.

“Ever since then, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Thanksgiving Day — so-called U.S. Thanksgiving Day — to speak the truth about the Pilgrim mythology, and also as a show of indigenous solidarity,” she said.

James said she hopes that someday, Thanksgiving will be entirely divorced from the myth of its origins.

“Unfortunately, the Pilgrim mythology has been so intertwined with the holiday, dating back to the 18th century, that it's very hard to see a future where it will be completely divorced,” she said.

This year, masks are mandatory for the National Day of Mourning because of COVID-19. Participants plan to march, but the traditional potluck has been canceled, and some speeches will be pre-recorded.

United American Indians of New England organizes the event and will stream it live online.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.